Baldonado Grows Booming Insurance Business By Serving Rural Customers
Walk down any main street in a rural Nebraska town, and an insurance agency will likely be one of the store fronts.
That holds true for Elwood (population 682), where Jim Baldonado started selling insurance in the mid-1980s.
His business, The Home Agency, originated in a small town and serves farmers and residents of small towns. But, Jim Baldonado doesn’t think small.
He’s a big thinker, a generous giver and a hard-working entrepreneur who has grown his insurance business from a two-person office in 1986 to a family of 28 employees and nearly 6,000 rural customers in four states.
In 2009, The Home Agency was ranked by “Hispanic Business” magazine as one of the Top 500 Largest U.S. Hispanic-Owned Businesses and one of the 100 Fastest Growing Companies. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, The Home Agency topped the nation in crop insurance sales for Am-Ag.
This successful rural Nebraska business all started when Jim and his wife, Sharri, returned to rural Nebraska to raise their family.
Growing Up in Rural Nebraska
Jim grew up in Wauneta, where life wasn’t always easy as part of the only Hispanic family in town. By the time he was about to enter high school, he was headed down a troubled path. That’s when a caring guidance counselor took the time to help him.
“I wasn’t playing ball or doing anything besides getting into trouble,” Jim said. “If it wouldn’t have been for him, (Mr. H.O. Massie) who knows where I’d be.”
The counselor encouraged Jim to get involved in sports, where he found success. He also encouraged him to live with his mom instead of bouncing back and forth between his separated parents. That was hard for Jim, who was close to his dad.
Jim’s dad worked as the school janitor in Wauneta, and Jim learned some valuable advice from his dad that would help him later in business.
“Treat the janitor just like you would like to be treated,” is a business practice that Jim fully understands and later implemented in his business.
After high school, Jim attended McCook Community College for one year and then moved to Lincoln, where he managed a Lawlor’s Sporting Goods store.
One of Jim’s college friends grew up in Elwood, and that’s how he was first introduced to the Gosper County town.
“We would always come back to Elwood on weekends to hunt and fish, and I got to know a lot of people here, and I felt like it was a good place to raise a family,” Jim said.
He and Sharri, who is from Waco, Neb., married in 1980, and they moved to Elwood in 1983. Jim’s first job in Elwood was selling life insurance. He started working at The Home Agency in February 1986 with just one other employee.
In 1987, a marketing representative approached Jim about adding crop insurance to his products. Although Jim didn’t know much about the product at the time, he decided to give it a try. Over the years, Jim learned everything he could about crop insurance and was determined to be the expert in that product. He found a niche selling crop insurance and helping farmers use it as a tool to market grain.
“Our growth was tremendous,” Jim said. “Marketing your grain using crop insurance was new, and once we got in front of people and explained it, it grew like wild fire.”
His company experienced rapid growth in the 1990s and early 2000s. As customers grew in certain areas, they hired staff to serve those areas. Sometimes customers became employees. And, his new locations all sprung up in small towns. In fact, one location is housed in a grain elevator in a town with just 40 people.
“We serve farmers,” he said. “We don’t have to have a city.”
Jim worked long hours to build his business and focused on excellent customer service and product knowledge as well as hiring good people.
“When I hire people, I hire people as smart if not smarter than I, give them the direction I want them to go, and then get out of the way,” Jim said. “I’m not a micromanager.”
Jim advertises his business on twice daily commercials on KRVN. The radio spots air at the same time each day, at 10:16 a.m. and 12:56 p.m., and feature Jim talking about timely insurance and crop issues for 1 minute and 30 seconds.
“That’s been a big boost to our business,” Jim said. “There will be people who will call us before we are off the radio.”
KRVN reaches farmers across the state and beyond. Jim said 60 percent of his business comes from more than 50 miles away from Elwood, and he believes the radio is a factor in that.
Jim’s other main method of reaching customers is his full-color quarterly magazine that contains insurance tips and education, a personal column where he shares photos and updates about his family (wife, three daughters and four grandkids) and a photo spread showcasing beautiful photographs sent in by customers and family.
“We get so many compliments on it,” Jim said of the magazine. A recent compliment stated that the publication has “lots of relevant information for farmers” and that it helps customers feel like they are part of a family.
Once Jim has a customer, he works hard to keep that customer.
“Our customers are really more than customers,” he said. “They are really like our friends.”
Jim spends time with his customers and entertains them at his Plum Creek home near Johnson Lake and at Husker tailgate parties in Lincoln.
At The Home Agency headquarters in Elwood, Jim employs 12 staff. He also has 16 other employees scattered in 14 other locations; seven in other rural Nebraska towns, three in Kansas, three in Colorado; and one in Iowa. All the offices are located in rural towns with less than 5,000 people.
Although having offices near his rural customers is a bonus, it makes it difficult to recruit new employees.
“I think the biggest obstacle is trying to get younger people to move to smaller communities,” Jim said. “As we continue to grow, and some of our staff gets older, trying to replace them with young ones is just really hard.”
But, Jim said there’s no better place to raise a family than in rural Nebraska. He and his wife raised their three daughters in the Elwood–Johnson Lake area and loved the community support and camaraderie of a small town.
“That’s why we moved here,” Jim said. “Everybody’s family. Everybody takes care of everybody. If somebody needs help with something, you help. You don’t see that in the city. You just don’t have the connections that you have in a small community.”
He said rural Nebraska also boasts a lower cost of living than in cities, and Jim said he pays his employees well.
Jim, 60, may be approaching retirement age, but he has no plans to slow down. He wants to continue to expand his business locations. In addition to crop insurance, The Home Agency also sells other lines of insurance (life, health, auto, etc.) and serves rural businesses and non-farmers. He and his staff are focusing on growing their property and casualty policies and are excited to see how the new data available with precision agriculture will make their work with crop insurance easier and even more effective.
“We always pride ourselves on being the lead dog,” Jim said. He welcomes the changes in precision agriculture and is working on ways to incorporate the new data to make crop insurance easier for farmers.
“We as insurance people have to use all the stuff the farmers are spending money on to their advantage and our advantage as well instead of writing everything down on a piece of paper,” Jim said.
Jim also continues to look forward to giving back more to the communities he serves. He supports three main charities: Husker athletics, Team Jack (pediatric brain cancer research) and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. This past summer, Jim’s donation made it possible for a Nebraska teen-ager with a life-threatening condition to experience a family vacation in Kauai, Hawaii. This was the third gift out of five to be given away in 2017 by the Baldonado family.
“We have three daughters. We have four healthy grandsons,” Jim said. “We’ve never been faced with a close family illness with young people, and we are very fortunate about that. It really bothers me to see any young person to have to fight through any illness.”
For more information…
The Home Agency
210 Smith Ave.
Elwood, NE 68937